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June 2022 Issue
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Winter wonderland

Sudden weather changes, such as low cloud, can make winter tramping a challenge. Photo: William Shakespeare

What considerations become more important in winter? 

Magical experiences can be had in winter from the effects of weather that has passed or from weather that’s happening. It can be exhilarating to sit safely inside a hut or tent while a storm rages outside. 

In New Zealand, this can be experienced at any time of the year but it is more likely in winter. It makes trip planning all the more important, so here are some things to consider. 

Daylight hours

During winter, when it gets dark around 5pm, there may be only 8.5hr of daylight each day, whereas in summer there can be almost twice as much. It also gets darker sooner in the bush or valleys. Factor those short winter days into your planning and always pack a torch even on day trips.

Weather before the trip

Check if tracks have been damaged from slips, windfall or excessive mud. Could rivers and side streams be flowing high? Where is the snowline, and scattered snow? Then ask yourself: am I comfortable with this sort of trip? 

Forecast weather conditions

Persistent rain isn’t much fun. Heavy rain, whether in a deluge or persistent, can raise river levels. You may pass a river successfully only to find it is uncrossable when returning. Or you may get trapped between rivers as they rise. Cold, wet and windy conditions can be unpleasant but combine two or all three and there will be risk of hypothermia. Low cloud can create grey-out conditions which require excellent navigation skills. Settled snow requires skill and knowledge of avalanche conditions and risk management. Frost on the ground is extremely dangerous in alpine environments where a slip could be fatal.

Speed of weather change

It’s surprisingly easy to get into trouble by underestimating how quickly the weather can turn. Blue skies can turn to grey-out in 10 minutes. The temperature can drop several degrees in even less time. Do you have the gear and skills to deal with these weather changes? 

Timing and intensity of weather changes

Trying to beat a change in the weather has caused many a mishap. A weather change may arrive earlier or later, or be more or less intense than expected. Can you manage the trip if the weather deteriorates sooner or more intensely than expected? 

Location of the trip

What may be a significant issue on one side of the range may hardly affect the other side. Avoiding unbridged rivers and streams and exposed routes can enable a safe trip even in bad weather. Lower altitudes are warmer and less likely to get the worst effects of the weather. Simply choosing a different location may mean enjoying good or better weather that may be awful elsewhere. 

Informed decision

You can make an informed decision after considering all this information. Do you want to change the route or location? Will you enjoy the trip? Do you have the right skills and gear for the conditions? The hills will still be there for another day; stick around to enjoy them.

Heather Grady is an instructor with Outdoor Training New Zealand.